Large Piece of Turf Albrecht Dürer (1503)
I have just finished reading a brilliant book. A real page-turner. Well written, pacy, gripping, packed with drama and plot twists, and full of literary and artistic allusions. And it's all about weeds.
This is the first book by Richard Mabey that I've read, although I've been aware of him for years. I haven't exactly jumped on the recent nature-writing bandwagon, but I did read H is for Hawk and I did try to read The Wild Places, and I like everything Roger Deakin wrote. And that's about it. But this time, the spur was me wanting to find out more about something rather than me feeling I ought to be reading new and influential writing.
Ever since I raced through The Railways by Simon Bradley (another superb non-fiction read) in which he explains how the railways helped plants to spread around Britain (the Oxford ragwort story is a good one), I've been gazing out of train windows wondering what's growing in cuttings and on embankments and how everything got there. I'm not someone who feels offended or challenged by weeds, and I have a horror of bare soil around plants. This goes back to the suburban streets with 1950s houses and gardens where I grew up; all the local gardeners seemed to be locked in battle in nature and prided themselves on weed-free, plant-free spaces between hybrid tea roses and French marigolds. I'm probably a bit of a soft gardener myself, happy to host uninvited plants, as long as they perform in some way.
But I had no idea just how fascinating a history of weeds could be. The way they move around (eg in men's trouser turn-ups, on sheep's fleeces), settle, and adapt, their methods of seed dispersal, their sometimes incredibly long dormancy, their phenomenal persistence. The parables, metaphors, folklore, and wonderful local names, the red poppies in Flanders and the swathes of purple rosebay willowherb on urban bombsites. I didn't know there were so many weeds in paintings (by Dürer, Gainsborough, Stubbs) or in poetry. Shakespeare, perhaps, but not the poems by John Clare ('The Shepherd's Calendar', for instance).
Undergrowth Eliot Hodgkin (1941)
I'll never be a botanist, and I'll never be good at plant identification, but this book has made me think differently about wastelands, riverbanks, neglected urban corners, railway lines, and the weeds that grow there. I'm impressed by their vitality, ingenuity and sheer energy. And I still maintain a few leafy, flowering weeds would do nicely between rose bushes.